In response to a lackluster economy, more university students are turning toward entrepreneurial endeavors, creating their own businesses and, in turn, careers they can continue after graduation.
The experience of creating one’s own job just may be a defining act for a new Lost Generation, created not entirely by war but by seismic shifts in the American economy across industries. If you graduated college near the depths of the Great Recession around 2009 and likely for some years to come, the idea of entrepreneurship, particularly the novel vehicle of technology, is likely becoming an increasingly viable employment direction. Unemployment among the young, declining costs for launching a venture and high profile startup culture is changing the field for young talent.
A neat example of this change are the cofounders of Center City business analytics shop RJMetrics.
Bob Moore and Jake Stein graduated in 2006 from prestigious Ivy League schools — Princeton and Wharton respectively — and began careers in investment banking, as had been the norm for people of their skills and backgrounds for decades.
Then something changed. Lehman Brothers went under, and the prestige of Wall Street has crumbled. Like thousands of their peers, the pair traded in their suits for jeans and launched a business venture of their own.
Deborah Diamond, president of regional retention nonprofit Campus Philly, said students are realizing they need to have an entrepreneur’s state of mind, constantly thinking about what they can bring to the table, in order to be successful during a time when the concept of permanent employment and retirement is foreign.
That’s why Campus Philly and Diamond have taken an interest in the technology community in Philadelphia, which is largely driving entrepreneurship dialogue.
For example, with the Campus Philly Tech Crawl, Diamond said students have a chance to see the burgeoning startup community, helping to push the trend along. And with a generation heavily influenced by technology, Diamond said students have the tools to become founders of their own businesses.
It’s playing out in the region’s universities:
- the University of Pennsylvania launches a minor in “engineering entrepreneurship”
- Undergraduate and venture-focused PennApps becomes one of the world’s largest annual hackathons
- Drexel University unveils its entrepreneurship minor and $12.5 million soon-to-launch entrepreneurship school
- Temple University‘s Fox School of Business has grown its own entrepreneurship focus and promoted its buzzy cross-department, youth-focused Urban Apps and Maps Studio.
- The University of the Arts has its Music Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology curriculum
- After 12 years, the Wharton VIP program has seen growing interest.
- A pack of undergraduates launched nvigor, meant to plant the seeds of local technology and entrepreneurship opportunities across regional campuses.
- First Round Capital launches the Dorm Room Fund to get early access
The message is clear: for many disciplines, a college degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to employment, so the focus is to get students out into the world to find new paths. The declining costs of launching a venture and the employment situation has all but made that trend a certainty.
Meet some local examples.
Vincent Sanchez-Gomez, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying economics, created PageVamp, which lets users manage and create websites by using Facebook, said he found the excitement involved with starting a business, as well as the glory that comes with a finished product, too attractive to pass up.
“When you’re learning for your own company, it’s self-driven and so much more powerful,” said Sanchez-Gomez, who launched the company at the fall 2012 PennApps. “There’s a lot of life to keep trying ideas.”
Seeing the huge rise of student entrepreneurs and decreased cost of starting a company, Randy Rayess and Pratham Mittal, also at the University of Pennsylvania, started VenturePact, which helps connect developers with entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into real products.
While Rayess said the duo faced several standard obstacles, like building a strong team, marketing their products and managing their schoolwork with the business, he suggests students take advantage of the opportunity to become young entrepreneurs.
“Doing a startup as a student allows you to ‘de-risk’ the business and come to a point that when you graduate, you’re comfortable turning down [a traditional job] and pursuing your startup,” Rayess said, emphasizing that by starting a company, students can have more impact than working for someone else.
Despite the fears students may have while starting a business, Mikhail Naumov, a 24-year-old Rutgers University graduate, said it’s easier to start a company young due to resources universities often offer and the amount of more experienced entrepreneurs willing to provide mentorship and advice.
Naumov and his partner, Melissa Lee, founded The Green Program in a dorm room. Through their experiential educational program, students interested in renewable energy travel to Costa Rica or Iceland where they conduct service projects, learn from experts on sustainability and go on adventure excursions.
“You can make all the mistakes you can and learn from them and grow tremendously as a person and a young professional,” Naumov said.
Naumov, who grew up in Russia, said the entrepreneur attitude was instilled in him early on, and that when he was a student at Rutgers, he saw several other like-minded students with the same passion and drive.
“[College] is an open-minded environment in which you can really learn about yourself and accomplish some pretty incredible things,” Naumov said.
Student entrepreneurs also have the luxury of having fewer responsibilities to juggle than those who start businesses later in life, allowing for more time, greater flexibility and less risk.
Jonathan Davis, a Drexel student majoring in engineering, said starting Hot Spot Parking, an autonomous on-street parking management system, led him to receive helpful benefit from engineers, professors and other experts he might not have had access to if he wasn’t a student.
Currently looking for seed funding, Davis said not having children, a wife or a mortgage to worry about allows him to test things out and take more chances with his startup.
Blake Engelhard and Daniel Fine, both sophomores at Penn, started Glass-U, which produces custom folding sunglasses. The pair said they’re taking lessons learned in the classroom and applying them in the “real world” while also implementing the skills they gain from running a business into their schoolwork.
“Whether it’s your own funding or coming from the outside, it’s really getting your hands dirty and getting into the mix of things and learning from the experience of selling, of being out there, of being on the road, dealing with people and true customers rather than thinking theoretically,” Fine said.
Engelhard said the hands-on experience has helped him plan for the future rather than just worrying about upcoming tests. And despite the “phenomenal amount of hours” he needed to commit to Glass-U, he said starting a business has given him a focus in life.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience,” Engelhard said, “the things you learn from actually going hands on and doing what you want to do with your life while you’re in school is phenomenal.”